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Steve Aschburner

Game's legends celebrate past, cast wary eye toward future

Posted Feb 20 2011 9:55PM

LOS ANGELES -- On Friday of the NBA's 2011 All-Star Weekend, much time and attention was focused on the game's big names as they gathered in a Beverly Hills ballroom to continue the negotiations of a new (and likely difficult) collective bargaining agreement between the teams and the players' union.

David Stern and Billy Hunter. Mark Cuban and LeBron James. Dr. Jerry Buss and Kevin Durant. Peter Holt and Derek Fisher. Those and a host of other notables (and their attorneys) sat down together in what was a necessary and important step toward hammering out the next labor agreement. Or, if talks don't go well, sending the league into a lockout for some undetermined period of time.

On Sunday, though, another group of big names gathered. Legendary names such as Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Bill Walton, Jerry West, Bill Sharman, Jack Ramsay, Spencer Haywood, Artis Gilmore and dozens more. These were the men who built, brick by brick -- wait, maybe that's not a good metaphor for basketball players -- the league over which the current custodians and participants will be squabbling.

The lords and legends of right now should have been in that room Sunday. It might have reminded them that they, too, are just passing through a history of professional basketball that will stretch beyond the day their great-grandchildren spend their last dime of earnings.

"This has been a great life," Ramsay, the longtime coach, executive and broadcaster told the audience at the L.A. Convention Center on Sunday morning after being honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 12th Annual NBA Legends Brunch.

"Imagine," said Ramsay, one of seven basketball greats to be honored, "being associated with a game all your professional and adult life. It can't get any better than this."

Shaquille O'Neal was there, presenting former WNBA star Lisa Leslie with the Leadership Award. O'Neal asked all the former players to stand so he personally could thank them for making his path easier. But then, Shaq is closer to being a Legend himself these days than his teammates and opponents who will handle the league's business matters in the coming months.

Now, the great players of the past had their share of rancorous times with NBA owners, certainly, and vice versa. Some were exploited in contract situations. Others were forced to play and work with fewer rights and opportunities. The National Basketball Retired Players Association exists, in large part, to address wrongs left over from a business model tilted for so long against the on-court performers.

But when a vast banquet hall can overflow with nostalgia, talent, achievements appreciation and warm fuzzies the way this one did Sunday morning, you really hope those who crowd into the smaller, hotter meeting rooms in the coming months -- entrusted with the league's short- and long-term futures -- maintain some perspective.

"No question about it, when you're playing, you think you're going to play forever almost," said Archie Clark, a two-time All-Star who played for five NBA teams across 10 seasons and was a founder of the NBRPA in 1992. "We never think in terms of what might happen in the future. But when the cheering stops, we start to realize, 'What is this real world about?' "

Clark, along with Dave Bing, Dave Cowens, Oscar Robertson and the late Dave DeBusschere, helped created the retired players group to raise funds first for peers and predecessors struggling financially ("the pre-1965ers," said Clark of that group's small or non-existent pension benefits). Later, the association's charity work extended to their communities.

Now, with league revenues at an all-time high, there would seem no valid excuse for squabbling to the point of damaging the league's popularity and possibly its future.

"Of course, the league has to be financially viable," Clark said. "I'm sure that's what David [Stern, NBA commissioner] is looking at it. I'm sure the players are looking at that too, because they would hate to kill the golden goose. At the same time, there is a lot of revenue out there. And as a former player, I believe the players should definitely share in that revenue.

"I'm just hoping they get together in an amicable way and don't have a lockout where we miss basketball for any length of time."

Danny Schayes, an 18-year NBA veteran, the son of Hall of Famer Dolph Schayes and the NBRPA's interim executive director, said of the owners' and players' early negotiating positions: "They've almost established positions that aren't bridgeable. They're backed into corners where there doesn't seem to be an easy, face-saving solution. That's the thing I'm concerned about."

But Schayes, who was active in the 1998 CBA talks that pushed the start of a season back to January 1999, added: "It's like asking, `What's more important, your brain or your heart?' You can't live without either of them."

Brains, in the form of wisdom, and heart were everywhere at the Legends Brunch. Emcee Ernie Johnson, a cancer survivor, was visibly moved as he sent out good wishes to Orlando Magic executive Pat Williams, currently being treated for a blood cancer. Walton, who received the Humanitarian Award, talked with some serious affection for his parents, coaches and teammates.

Honored as Legend of the Year, West, at 72, called this "one of my most reflective times ever." Then he introduced his former Lakers coach Bill Sharman, winner of the Pioneer Award, assisted at age 84 to the stage by his son. James Worthy and Magic Johnson -- who received the Hometown Hero and Legends ABC Award (Athletics-Business-Community) -- traded praise and appreciation for their time on the "Showtime" Lakers.

Johnson also thanked a roster of great Michigan basketball figures who preceded him and shaped his career. Then he concluded: "I hope that we will become more than just having an annual dinner at NBA All-Star Weekend. We must help each other and then we must help those young players who, right now, don't understand what it means to be a retired player -- but one day they will."

Among other highlights Sunday morning:

• Bill Russell, who last week was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in Washington, presented Walton with his Humanitarian Award. He shared the story of old L.A. owner Jack Kent Cooke trying to get Russell to play for the Lakers after he had retired from the Boston Celtics. "I politely said, 'Aren't you paying Wilt Chamberlain a lot of money to be a backup center?' So I missed my chance to be a Laker," Russell said.

• Leslie thanked the Lakers of O'Neal and Kobe Bryant for setting the bar high for her WNBA L.A. Sparks team. "I was like, 'We've got to get a trophy every time the guys get one," she said of their back-to-back titles.

• Comedian George Lopez, another host of the event, lauded the Legends for playing "at a time when the best players played against each other. Walton, Johnson, Russell ... they didn't move to Miami to play with each other."

• Actor Andy Garcia, a rabid Lakers fan, presented Johnson with his award and said: "How many people do you know in life who can live up to and carry around the name of `Magic?' " Garcia said.

• The audience -- Hall of Famers and fans alike -- serenaded Ramsay on the eve of his 86th birthday with a rendition of "Happy Birthday."

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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